Tag Archives: Ecology

Worst floods in living memory

23 Oct

As some of you may have read, the department of the Aude has been hit by the worst floods in living memory. Our commune, along with 125 others in the Aude, has been officially recognised as being a zone of natural catastrophe.

Fortunately our dwelling has not been affected but our organic garden has been wiped out. The disaster figures are staggering:

    14 people are dead with scores more in hospital
    6,000 people without homes
    Over 10,000 tonnes of household possessions to be removed and scrapped
    Many bridges need rebuilding or replacing
    The total damage to possessions and infrastructure is estimated at €300 million.
    Over 6,000 vehicles to be scrapped

All this happened within an area about 30km diameter of where we live.

Here are some photos of our damage.

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The mysterious hole

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We have lots of wood now!

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There is one of the decking pallets under this lot!

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Where to start?

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We cannot access this area yet

We are now taking stock of what’s happened. Sadly the beehives were swept away along with the colony of bees that Trish had been nurturing for the last two years. One of the four goldfish seem to have jumped ship. The new watering system has lost only the pump, amazingly. We think we can find three of the nine pallets that made up the garden terrace, but the frame of the marquee that covered it has gone. The reed bed system seems to be intact although the lower filter is almost entirely covered with debris.

This is what the garden looked like before the flood:

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Bachelor life

17 May

I’m a temporary bachelor as Trish has gone to Nigeria to spend time with our friends Irene and Michael, who live there. Trish left on Monday – she was so excited and it was my pleasure to support her in getting all her papers and travel plans in order.

The day after she left I thought I’d struggle to find things to do. I’m pleased to say I’ve been busy ever since. When living as a couple, one has to compromise and share, naturally. Living on one’s own means I can pretty much do what I want when I want. So my present life has more of a natural rhythm to it and it’s a more efficient way of living – only for a short time, though!

One thing I have noticed is that despite saying to myself each night “I’ll have a lie in tomorrow” when the morning comes I’m up and rating to go at 7:30 am!

Another thing – I seem to be eating less food than I do when there are two of us. Perhaps it’s easier to cater for just one. I know I eat smaller quantities anyway after my gastric bypass, however, I do normally eat five times a day and my calorie intake is about 1,800 a day. These last few days I’ve gone down to three meals a day! My normal weight is now 110 kgs or 17 stone 4 lbs and over the winter this crept up a tad. So hopefully by the time Trish returns to Montolieu (28 May), I will be below my goal weight.

Today I am going to work this morning in the garden with Mareva and Nicolas (who live here). No doubt we will be ’assisted’ by Nettles as we weed the vegetable patch! Nettles in the gardenThen we will plant vegetable seeds and the potatoes. After lunch, I plan to continue the work removing the old window panes on the veranda of Irmtraud’s loft. It’s a noisy and tough job, as the windows are three storeys up and I can only work from the inside. Replacing windowsAlso, the putty is over 50 years old and is pretty much like concrete! I’m about to deploy the electric concrete chiseller! Later this evening I plan to pop into the village and eat a crepe cooked by our friends Veronique and José from their mobile creperie called Speedycrepe.

Tomorrow Louise and I plan to go to the seaside at Gruissan, to get some sun. So possibly a day off! Yippee!Gruissan harbour

Is winter over, over here?

2 Mar

It’s not been that cold in the south west of France this winter. So far, we’ve had two separate snowfalls, each lasting just two days. So, merely a dusting in comparison with what the UK has been receiving this week. And we’ve only had two nights since the beginning of the year where the temperatures dropped below freezing.

I took Nettles for a walk this morning and shot these views of our village from down below where the residential home is.

In the top photograph you can see our church, which is an ancient monument, built between the 13th and 15th centuries.

But it is not all good news – for the last two months we’ve had exceptional rainfall. In one weekend in January it rained the equivalent of one month’s precipitation. The river which passes by our garden is running in full spate (and is very noisy at night).

Anyway, now that spring has arrived, the gardeners are active again. Soil has been carefully prepared and marked out. A garden plan has been drawn up by Trish. And she and several volunteers have already dug-in the compost, ready for the seeds be planted. In fact, Trish has already planted broad beans and peas. There are also seedlings growing in the greenhouse.

Later, we drove into Carcassonne and visited a place where they sell everything that is required for watering a garden automatically. As we jokingly explained to the man behind the counter, coming from England meant that we had little or no experience of automatic watering systems, since it usually rained a lot where we lived in Kent. He understood completely what we were saying! The next step is to go back to see him and show him the plan of the garden and then he’ll be able to calculate precisely the components that we need.

Below is a shot of la Montagne Noire that I took on our return to Montolieu whilst Nettles playing in the field nearby.

Keep warm out there!

It’s finally finished!

5 Sep

We don’t really believe it but the reed bed sewage system is finally finished. At the end of July we had a visit from the company who’d designed the system. They requested that we make a few changes to the layout of the vertical bed. This entailed moving the dispersers, raising the separator and reinforcing and raising the grill that stops people and animals from coming into contact with the effluent.

Trish, I and Dylan, a volunteer from Missoula, Montana, USA, worked during August to carry out the work. We also tried out two ways to cap the edge of the bed – roof tiles and stones. It was decided that the tiles looked nicer. We had a stock of old roof tiles in the old factory. The only problem was that to get to them we had to go under a huge beam supporting the floor above and this beam had broken in two!

So we then remembered seeing four new metal props which had been stored under the terrace of the Old House. Provenance unknown but they did the job. The beam can’t fall any further but will need specialist help to push it back into place and brace it.

Here is Dylan working in the sh*t!

We had to carry out a number of adjustments in order to meet the specifications of the system’s designer. Now these are finished, we are waiting for a visit from the SPANC (Le Service Publique d’Assainissement Non-Collectif). SPANC is the public body in France that controls the design and implementation of sewage treatment systems that are not connected to the public sewer. If they are satisfied then they will issue an approval notice which we can present to the Town Hall.

This has been a major project here. Over the last three years I have gained a lot of knowledge (perhaps too much knowledge!) on how sewage is treated. We looked into pumping stations which could deliver our waste up to the public system, which was 300 metres up our track, and 30 metres higher. This was discarded as too costly even though a sewage pipe had been installed under the track when the renovations were carried out some 15 years ago. We then investigated micro-systems, both above and underground, but the logistics of installing a large plastic structure were interesting and the running costs were also a factor, as the systems need electricity and emptying annually. It was finally decided to install a reed bed system (phytoépuration in French).Here is a shot of the finished system. I promise this is the last you’ll here about this subject for a while!

For us, it’s been a major project. Trish and I organised the work, most of which was carried out by a working party of 26 volunteers over six days at the end of April. They dug out the 25 tonnes of soil to make the lower bed, filled 500 sandbags to create the upper bed, laid the liners in each (three for each bed), installed the drainage pipes and vents, hand shovelled 42 tonnes of stones, gravel and sand into the two beds. This required a lot of coordination and arranging and fetching of supplies – all conducted in French.

Then over the next four months we procured hundreds of plants (some bought, some dug up from waterside locations and some propagated). All were planted by Trish and our volunteer Dylan, who is in his final year studying for a degree in ecology. Another team of volunteers, attending a six day course here on living NVC, demolished the old sewage pipes and installed the new delivery pipes and diverter system. Finally we built a protection grill to keep people and animals away from the effluent, mounted a capping of roof tiles, experimented with covering the sand bags in mud (work in progress here), and tweaked the layout of the delivery pipes and dispersers.

Finally I am pleased to report that the system is working! It coped with over 70 people who attended a 10 day course here in August. The water discharging into the river is clear and we now have an ecological and natural system for treating the sewage here at the Peace Factory.

If you want to know more about the NVC courses go to our website. If you’d like to know about volunteering here, go to our volunteer website.

Thanks for reading.

Ecologically Speaking

31 Jan

For many years before we left the UK, I was keen to protect the environment and belonged to several organisations such as WWF for Nature, National Trust, Woodland Trust and the local Wildlife Trust to name a few. I also saved and reused paper and envelopes and won a gold award for Gardening for Wildlife. Here we live in the middle of the countryside in an environment which once was hostile to the local wildlife. As an old tannery it must have polluted the river and the ground around it. But it did give a large number of the villagers a job, although it sounds like it was a very hard job, dirty wet and cold and involved the use of many chemicals. 

Since Louise bought this site over twenty years ago it has slowly been cleaned up and redeveloped into a peaceful haven in which to live close to nature. However there is still much to do. We are still removing a lot of debris from the old tannery and planning to get the water turbine working again to generate electricity for the site and install a method of dealing with our sewage. Another idea is to get the old water filter and tower working again to provide grey water to use for toilets and cleaning. We hope to achieve this using a ram pump which does not need any electricity to work. It works by the pressure of the water itself. These are large and expensive projects and will have to wait until funds and help becomes available. 

There is a lot we are doing and can do in smaller ways to help protect the environment. In the gardens (which is an area close to my heart) we use a no dig technique to prepare the ground for growing vegetables. We collect cardboard and put it down on the areas we want clearing of weeds and cover it with manure.  Nature then works it’s wonders and the insects amalgamate the manure within the soil. Only a small amount of weeding is then required as by not digging the soil we don’t disturb the weed seeds embedded in there and many stay dormant. 

  

 The manure comes from our local organic sheep and cow farmers. We cover all the beds with the straw and wood shavings collected from the chicken house (prefertilised) and sow clover as a fertiser which when we hoe the beds is taken down into the soil. This is done in the winter months and by spring the beds are ready for planting in. It saves our backs too!  The wood shavings are free from our local carpenter as we save him from having to burn the excess he produces. 

We have also built and installed three composting toilets 

  which also use sawdust or wood shavings from the carpenter. When they are full we empty the contents into larger bins up in the woods where it is allowed to decompose for six months to a year before using it on the gardens. All our food waste is put into the compost bins in the garden and used when planting begins. I also use a Bokashi system for breaking down all food waste before putting it on the compost heap. We also try to reuse as much as we can and where possible use old wood for building steps or shelves or even garden seats. We have also made some steps and planters out of old tyres  

 which we found in the old factory. As we are surrounded by woods I would also like to make our own wood chips for mulching the gardens to help retain the moisture in the soil as is is very dry here for most of the year. But I haven’t worked out the most cost effective way of doing this yet. 

Inside and on the buildings we use Eco products for cleaning and have insulated the apartments with eco friendly insulation and built the new apartments as ‘passive homes’. This means that they need the minimum of heating as the sun heats them during the day and being well insulated they retain the heat. They have been built within the concrete frame of the factory so there was no demolition of the outside walls and the exterior looks unchanged (except where we have repainted and improved the buildings). For cleaning we mostly use white vinegar and bicarbonate of soda and black soap which is very effective for most things. Cleaning windows is a bit of an issue here as we have three floors and on the training floor alone there are over 250 panes of glass on the outside walls of the factory. And because we have six garages under the ground floor, each floor in effect becomes one level higher and is almost twice the height of a normal house! We still haven’t managed to find a solution to cleaning the outside of these windows yet. 

We don’t use tumble driers as they use a lot of electricity but we do use dishwashers, as if filled are economical with water and electricity. We try to ensure washing machines are only used when full and we don’t use tap water for the gardens if possible. When boiling water we don’t fill the kettle unless we need all the water and on the odd occasion we hand wash dishes we use that water for watering the garden. We are now replacing all our light bulbs with new LED bulbs which use less electricity and last longer. 

We had a discussion about buying old or new furniture and clothes and the conclusion we came to was that some people need to buy new products to keep people in work but give them away to charities so that they can help others and provide cheaper products for those on a budget or keen on saving the planet. We also discussed whether it is better to buy recycled toilet and kitchen rolls or to buy paper produced from sustainable sources. The conclusion was that it is better to buy sustainably produced products as the recycling process is not always as ecological. 

We still have a lot more to do here so if you would like to come and see what we are doing you would be most welcome. See our website.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!